A humble studio in Madison, Wis., that recorded some of the most trailblazing indie rock of the 1980s and ’90s is commemorated in “The Smart Studios Story.” Not so stadium-league-starry as some other recent documentaries about fabled recording venues (“Muscle Shoals,” “Sound City,” etc.), Wendy Schneider’s fond, unpretentious feature will appeal to a more limited audience of audiophiles still or newly smitten with bands that — Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins aside — remain mostly well under the popular radar a quarter-century later.
By the early-to-mid-1980s the Midwest was a petri dish busily growing new mutations of punk/new wave-inspired “college rock,” their idiosyncrasies developing in useful isolation from the publicity glare of coastal media centers. In 1983, U. of Wisconsin students-turned-full-time music fanatics Butch Vig and Steve Marker decided to rent an old warehouse space and turn it into a makeshift recording studio, complete with empty egg cartons lining the walls as “soundproofing.” They charged $25 an hour when they charged at all, and decades later laugh at the very idea that they might have had a “business model.”
Initially focusing largely on local and regional talents, they recorded a lot of short-lived units (and their own one-shot pseudonymous joke bands, such as Rectal Drip) as well as influential if stubbornly low-selling ones such as Die Kreutzen, Vig’s own group Spooner, and Killdozer. The latter Madison-based group is cited here as a sort of quintessential Smart Studios act for its simultaneous resistance to commercial success, small but fervent fanbase, and role in seeding ground for the later grunge epoch. These early days are remembered with great fondness by a variety of musicians and scenesters, with the initial site’s “clubhouse feel” abetted by regular trips to the bar across the street — not just to refuel, but also sometimes to draft any available patrons for backing vocals.
The discs coming out of Smart Studios began attracting loyal patronage from key indie imprints of the era (Touch and Go, SubPop, Frontier), and even a few bands that graduated to major labels began insisting on recording there. When Vig produced Nirvana’s surprise 1991 smash “Nirvana,” the studio entered a period of frenetic activity where it gave birth to major albums by prominent acts like L7, Soul Asylum and Smashing Pumpkins (Vig notes that in Billy Corgan, he “met his match” in driven perfectionism).
As the operation moved, expanded and professionalized, its founders also grew very busy with their own new musical project Garbage, which featured the gutsy Scottish singer Shirley Manson. Eventually their many personal obligations, rising costs and general industry changes spelled the end for Smart Studios, which shuttered in 2010 despite some notable later releases recorded there from the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Fall Out Boy.
With plenty of archival video and other materials on tap, “The Smart Studios Story” is a whirlwind tour of a busy if largely subterranean epoch whose long, often fleetingly glimpsed talent roster should pique the curiosity (and/or nostalgia) of alt-rock archaeologists. So many snippets of music are heard that a CD release of the full tracks would probably require three or four discs — and there would be precious little dross in the lot.
The Kickstarter-funded documentary sports an aptly DIY feel but is polished where it counts, notably in the sound departments.